Chapter 1

CROATIA Spring 1527

Thomas Devilstone listened to the low rumbling noise and knew it wasn’t thunder. The early spring sky was as cloudless as a nun’s future so the noise could only be gunfire. The Englishman turned to look at his three companions who were also gazing towards the far horizon and their expression were equally grim.

“May St Christopher’s bastard children curse you Englishman, I thought you knew where you were going!” Luis Quintana moaned.

With a sigh, the Portugee sat down on one of the limestone boulders that littered the edge of the mountain track, pulled off his battered shoe and rubbed his aching feet. 

The three men had spent the last few days following little used goat tracks and hidden paths through the mountains but despite their caution they seemed to have stumbled back into the war.  They’d hardly seen another person since they’d left the Danube valley three weeks ago and the abandoned villages, empty fields and deserted pastures had been picked clean of crops and livestock. Either a passing army had stripped the countryside bare or the local peasants had hidden everything edible before fleeing for their lives.

“I told you we should have made for Segna instead of Spalato, this far south the Sultan’s pickets are everywhere,” said Bos de Vries irritably. The giant Frisian stretched, scratched his filthy red beard and wondered why the Turks or anyone else might want this barren stretch of Dalmatian coast. As far as he could tell, there was nothing worth looting from the impoverished villages they’d passed, whilst the parched scrubland between each collection of hovels was only good for goats and lizards.

“We all agreed the Venetians would never let the Turks capture Spalato so that was our best way out of this god forsaken country,” added Prometheus, who was a Nubian and as black as the Sahara night. He was also as big as the Frisian but if Bos had the strength and agility of an ox, Prometheus moved with the lissom grace of a panther. The Nubian cupped a hand to his ear and as he did so the guns fell silent.

“Praise God, the Turks have finally been defeated,” cried Bos hopefully.

“Don’t be a fool” snapped Quintana. “Have you forgotten King Louis of Hungary’s paltry army of mad Magyars was the only thing that stood between the Turks and the gates of Vienna? And apart from us they’re all dead.”

“The Portugee is right, Suleiman’s janissaries won’t have been defeated so soon after Mohacs,” said Thomas and his three companions shivered at the mention of the name. Thomas and his companions had been in the Hungarian king’s bodyguard when the elite Turkish janissaries of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had annihilated the flower of Hungarian chivalry at Mohacs. Once their employer, King Louis, had been killed the four men had been forced to hide in the marshes at the edge of the battlefield to avoid capture and for two days they’d lain in stinking mud, watching in horror as the janissaries beheaded more than two thousand Christian prisoners. They’d ventured east in search of wealth and honour, now all they wanted was to leave Hungary as quickly as possible.

“So do we still try and reach the Fortress of Clissa or do we find another route to the sea?” said Prometheus, sniffing the air and wrinkling his nose. The wind carried a strange odour, it was the acrid smell of gun smoke mixed with the more pleasant scents of sage and thyme.

“Either way, if I don’t eat something soon I shall faint from hunger and you’ll have to carry me the rest of the way,” grumbled Bos.
“If you can’t walk we’ll leave you for the crows, you Lutheran heretic,” said Quintana. Bos was about to curse his companion for a papist cat’s paw but Thomas interrupted him.

“It would be madness to walk towards the sound of gunfire, at least until we know who’s winning the battle. We should find a different path through the mountains,” he said and the others nodded their agreement.

At twenty seven Thomas was the youngest of the group but he was also the most quick witted and the other men had learned to trust his instincts. Until his disgrace and exile from the Court of King Henry VIII, Thomas had enjoyed a reputation as a skilled alchemist, astrologer and necromancer who, the superstitious whispered, could summon dragons to do his bidding. Quintana, Bos and Prometheus knew better than to believe such stories but they had witnessed the Englishman survive his own hanging. Such a man had clearly been blessed by God, or the devil, and therefore deserved both their loyalty and respect.

There was no time for further discussion as the thunder of cannon fire had been replaced by the sounds of screams and galloping horses. Thomas and the others had been in enough battles to recognise a rout when they heard it, so they began to scramble up the rocky hillside. The only shelter on this barren mountain was a thicket of myrtle and buckthorn clinging to an outcrop of rock so the men crawled under these low trees. From here they could watch the track whilst remaining unseen by anyone travelling along it.

A minute later a score of men dressed in long coats, baggy pantaloons and white headcloths decorated with a single feather, came running down the track. These men looked like soldiers but they must have thrown away their weapons in their desperate flight from the battle as they carried nothing in their hands. The fugitives were being pursued by a squadron of cavalry who were dressed in similar clothes but instead of turbans the horsemen wore tall brimless hats decorated with three feathers and around their shoulders were simple cloaks of cured sheepskin. Thomas and the others did not recognise either groups’ costume, so they couldn’t tell who was Christian and who was Turk, but it was clear that the men on foot were doomed.